Nanda Grey is 9 years old when her father, a convert to Roman Catholicism, enrolls her in the Convent of the Five Wounds in Lippington village, outside London. Nanda is an intelligent child who, after a few stumbles getting used to the completely new and strict rules, finds that she can fit in well at the school. She makes friends, does well in her classes, and eventually earns the coveted green ribbon that shows she’s a pious and upright student. However, during her four years at the Five Wounds, the nuns constantly remind her that she must take care to avoid pride and close friendships and anything else that might keep her from being fully broken for Christ.
In Antonia White’s 1933 novel, Catholic school (at least this Catholic school) is depicted as a harsh and cruel place. Although there are no scenes of corporal punishment or physical cruelty, the psychic wounds inflicted are grievous. Every movement the girls make is subject to scrutiny and measurement. During the feast of Immaculate Conception, for example, the children are all represented by animals placed near the manger according to how well they were doing in school. One little girl, Monica, cannot explain the Immaculate Conception, and after grilling her publicly about it, her teacher says, “I am afraid Monica must be this little black sheep that was lost on the way and never got near the manger at all.” The girls treat this as perfectly natural, but surely such constant ranking would take a toll. Yet, we learn, many of the girls come back and take the veil–often the very ones who seem the liveliest and most worldly.
Perhaps one of the reasons so many come back is that the education program is designed to make it just about impossible for them to get along in the complex world where rules are not so clearly laid out. Almost from the moment Nanda enters the school, she’s taught to extricate herself from anything that the authorities deem inappropriate, sometimes even regardless of what her parents think. One of the sadder scenes in the book is her parents’ first visit. Her mother goes to embrace her, interrupting the curtsey she’s been instructed to give and bewailing her severe hairstyle and the gloves she’s required to wear. Her parents then give her a book to give a classmate and neighbor as a birthday gift–the book is later confiscated because gifts aren’t allowed and the book is inappropriate. I found this whole sequence so heart-breaking because it shows how quickly these girls are torn away from what they now and the people who love them. And the end of the book makes this series of events even more difficult to bear. In the end, Nanda is ripped from her family–and from her self.
One of the things I appreciated about this book is that, despite offering a shocking glimpse in an example of Catholic education, it doesn’t come out against Christianity, or even the church. The convent is a particular example (and there are other Convents of the Five Wounds that are no doubt similar), but we’re not given any reason to think that all convent schools everywhere are like this. We’re given only Nanda’s experience at this one school. And even Nanda recognizes that the cruel treatment she endures is due to the school’s policies, not a dictate from God:
Nanda’s rebelliousness, such as it was, was directed entirely against the Lippington methods. Her faith in the Catholic Church was not affected in the least. If anything, it became more robust. She went to Communion every morning and never again experienced the same dryness of her first approach.
Nanda sometimes struggles to be a good Catholic and to keep her mind on God, but her struggle is the struggle of every believer. And, given the climate she’s in, it’s a struggle she must undertake alone. In a way, the convent itself forces each girl to face her own struggles but provides no support and love to help her see God’s grace. It’s all weights and measures.
In the end, it’s not clear how four years under this regime has left Nanda. She is deeply changed by the end of the book, but the precise nature of the change is left unclear. In the final moments she appears to be at a spiritual crossroads, and she’s chosen her direction, but we can’t quite be sure what that next step will be. But there’s a feeling of finality to the choice, and I have a feeling that, even at 13, she’s strong-minded enough to keep her mind on the path she’s chosen, even if every circumstance she faces pushes her in another direction.